2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Who Needs to Score? (Part Two)

September 15, 2015

Continuing with our look at the contestants in the main debate, we turn our attention to four contestants with good to excellent track records in these sort of events.  Odds are most of them will do pretty well on Wednesday, but can they do well enough to really push their campaigns forward?

5. Ted Cruz

Cruz was a champion debater in college, an Ivy League Legend.  Yet, he didn’t distinguish himself in Round 1. They call these televised events debates, but they really aren’t, at least not in the traditional sense, particularly when they have 11 participants.

This is more a combination of a group job interview and an extended sound bite contest.  Traditional debating, which has one opponent and an audience expecting to hear each side directly address the arguments of the other, bears little relationship beyond the name.

This leaves Cruz in a bit of a rhetorical straitjacket, unable to really put his skills to use.  He’s also constrained by the presence of Trump and Carson.  While their combined support of approximately 50% in both national and state polls shows how large the potential pool for Cruz is, at the moment he’s a second or third choice option.

He’s positioned himself as well as possible given the constraints.  In a year seemingly tilted to outsiders, Cruz is the one incumbent elected official who clearly qualifies as one.  He’s the leading second choice among very conservative voters in a year where it appears moderates will have less influence.  Normally, establishment folks would rather slide down a giant razor blade into a pool of rubbing alcohol than consider the idea of Nominee Cruz for one millisecond.

Now there’s Trump, a far greater evil to most traditional GOP influencers.  Others might fear turning the government over to a neurosurgeon, regardless of how much capacity for growth he’s shown over the past fifty years.  In a world where Democrats might actually nominate Bernie Sanders, if the grass-roots won’t buy a Rubio-type and the political novices prove unready, Ted is ready and waiting.

To continue to keep himself well-positioned, Cruz needs to devote time to both Trump and Carson voters.  He has no way of knowing which candidate (if either) will slip first and if that will happen before or after Iowa.  He can continue trying to appeal to both without having to compromise his record or move much ideologically.  Essentially, Cruz needs to prepare a couple of mini-speeches to each constituent group, either ahead of time or on the fly and hope he gets to give them.

There is little downside.  Cruz is unlikely to say or do anything that would offend his current core support, or a Trump or Carson supporter.  The current contours of the race give him no reason to moderate his approach or rhetoric.  If Carson should noticeably stumble, Cruz could find himself moving up soon.  Agree or disagree with him, Cruz discusses foreign policy with more clarity than either of the two poll leaders.

Fiorina is likely to draw more attention than Cruz, so he’ll need to use his speaking slots wisely to avoid being marginalized and letting her get ahead of him with some of these voters.  That’s where his risk lies, but she has a long road ahead to become a top-tier threat.

6. John Kasich

So far, mostly so good for the Ohio governor.  Kasich is the top non Trump/Carson candidate in the New Hampshire polls.  He’s focused on that audience and is doing relatively well, despite a climate that doesn’t favor someone first elected to Congress in 1982.

Unlike the other sitting governors in the race, Kasich remains popular at home and has actually seen his approval rating rise since entering the race.  His most obvious competitor, Jeb Bush is struggling.  If you told Team Kasich the day he entered the race they would lead Jeb in New Hampshire and sit virtually even with Scott Walker nationwide in mid-September they would have screamed with glee.

The exact path Kasich wanted is now wide open.  Pundits now semi-regularly mention him as a plausible establishment-friendly choice.  While at one time his quirks and occasional deviation from convention were seen as liabilities, in the new Age of Authenticity, it’s an asset, and besides Republican establishmentarian beggars can’t be choosers.

Having set himself up well on the moderate side of the race and having said little of anything that would create a good Democrat attack ad next fall, the challenge for Kasich is to keep up the good work while seeing if he can somehow make himself more palatable to conservatives.

He’s not going to win over devoted Trumpists or huge Carson fans.  The trick is being just palatable enough, so that half the party wouldn’t revolt if he was nominated.  For this week, that means not saying anything a more conservative candidate will use against him in five months.

For someone once accused of lacking message discipline, Kasich has shown tremendous focus, saying the same thing on the stump, in the first debate and in interviews.  Now he needs to add a few new verses without losing his pitch.  If he succeeds, it will be very subtle but help in the long run.

7. Chris Christie

If not for a quirk in CNN’s system of calculating who qualified for the big show, Christie and his lagging campaign would have instead spent time jousting with Bobby Jindal in the junior varsity debate.  He’s also a cautionary tale for Walker, having gone from the Great GOP Hope to outcast without being able to arrest the slide.

When he entered the race in a tier he wasn’t previously expecting, Christie made the correct decision to make his push in New Hampshire instead of Iowa.  He’s spent most of his time in the Granite State and tailored his message accordingly.  Entitlements reform isn’t always the easiest sell, especially when your solution is pushing out eligibility ages (something that’s unavoidable, but not popular), but these are the voters to pitch it to.

At first, Chrstie had some traction, finding himself squarely in the second tier.  Though it wasn’t what you (or he) might have envisioned for him in 2013, with enough town halls, enough opportunity to play straight-talking Jersey Guy, he could build himself up as 2016 approached.  If Jeb stumbled, who knows….

Well, Jeb did stumble, but Christie was upstaged by a late entrant.  No, not the loud guy with the gold-plated tower with his name on it, but the son of a postman who governs Ohio.  Kasich has stolen his thunder and hidden it somewhere.  It’s going to be very hard for Christie to move past him.

Kasich has lower negatives among very conservative Republicans, evangelicals and self-described Tea Party members than Christie or Jeb.  They don’t like him yet, but some don’t have an opinion.  Christie has to knock out Kasich to have a path.  While establishment East Coast financiers preferred Christie a couple months ago, they’re suddenly finding Kasich interesting.

You can argue whether Christie or Kasich have done a better job in office, but Ohio is doing better than New Jersey.  Yes, Christie inherited a mess, a state with underlying pension problems on the order of Illinois or California, instead of a Rust Belt state trying to recover from the Great Recession.  While Christie is enduring debt downgrades because New Jersey hasn’t figured out how to pay the bills in 2025, Kasich benefits from jobs created over the past four years.

The candidate who has to explain is always at a disadvantage.  Christie went on Meet the Press this past Sunday and spent his segment doing just that.  Chuck Todd pushed him the entire time, moving from one criticism of his New Jersey tenure to another.  He handled it well, pushed back and made his case.  Most candidates would have done worse in the same situation.

Still, you can play defense or underdog, not both.  If only 10 candidates are invited to the next main debate (the thinning of the JV herd makes me wonder if structural changes are likely), Christie is tracking away from being included.  Tomorrow is possibly his last chance to make his case.

I have no idea what that case is.  Each candidate will have approximately 8 to 9 minutes of speaking time.  In that window, he needs to restore his position as a favorite (or at least strong option) among moderates and establishment conservatives while simultaneously directly or indirectly discrediting Kasich.  If anyone can figure out the word play it’s Christie, but he has 24 hours to salvage the remnants of his candidacy.  Otherwise, he’ll be out of the race by Christmas, as his supporters tell him to get out of Kasich’s way before voting starts.

The debate is as important to Christie as any other candidate, but his limited upside drops him down on our list.  Best case scenario is going back to competing for the non-Jeb moderate slot and hoping Rubio ultimately targets Iowa.

8. Marco Rubio

Rubio tends to do very well in debate environments.  Unlike some competitors he speaks very well in extended sound bites.  For the most part he does a good job of ignoring the other people on stage and focusing on the millions watching at home.

All good stuff.  So far it hasn’t translated to polling power.  Though Rubio got a bump right after his official announcement and another right after the first debate, both faded within a couple weeks.  Listening to Rubio in a debate recalls the old comment about Chinese food–after 90 minutes you’re hungry again (side note: I’ve never found that accurate, it’s just as filling as most other food types).

For months, several things have continued.  Rubio is one of the most popular candidates with GOP voters.  He’s the second or third, or at least a plausible choice for many voters.  He is not in the lead, or even the secondary pack in most Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina polls.  So, Rubio both has a clear path and absolutely no path.

As a career politician with little executive experience (he claims being Florida Speaker of the House counts), and no meaningful private sector background, Rubio isn’t particularly well positioned for the 2016 zeitgeist.  You can even argue his natural glibness and facility with words acts against him now, making him seem more politicianish.

To his credit, Rubio has neither panicked nor repackaged himself.  While Scott Walker flails on a daily basis, deciding to go back to attacking unions, while simultaneously pulling out of a commitment to keynote speak at a California GOP donor conference, Marco is staying the course.

This debate is nominally supposed to focus on foreign policy, something that plays to his strengths.  Not only has Rubio concentrated on this during his senate term, but he doesn’t have any positions the median GOP voter would disagree with.  Like usual, he’ll sound good, sound prepared.  Most other candidates are more likely to wind up on the Trump radar this round.

It’s hard to imagine Rubio doing badly, and difficult to picture him becoming a front-runner just from this debate.  His upside is more textured.  If some/all of the candidates in the higher debate impact group (Bush, Walker, Fiorina, Carson) do poorly, while Rubio turns in his normal performance, it eases his path.

He’s waiting and biding his time.  Figure Rubio will really hit he gas pedal around Thanksgiving, with more of a push in Iowa or New Hampshire depending on how the field looks.  If an opportunity presents himself, he’ll take it, but it appears he’s letting his opponents play the mole in whack-a-mole.  Walker’s experience over the past few months is a big argument in favor of this strategy.

The reason it seems odd for a supposed top-tier candidate to lie in the weeds is that it may never have happened before.  Many candidates have temporized or deliberated, waiting to formally enter the race, only to see their window shut before they move.  Can’t think of a time where an active, functioning candidate played possum like this.  In 2007, Barack Obama held some of his fire, while concentrating on building a grass-roots army, but this is different.

It may not work.  A competitor may consolidate the moderate/mainstream conservative side of the field before Rubio rolls the heavy artillery on to the metaphorical battlefield.  The midpoint compromise candidate might wind up to his right, or need to be an outsider.  But that’s unknowable.  In a field of this size, this is a good strategy.  It still looks like Rubio is the most likely nominee, even if those odds are well south of 50% and there is currently little data evidence to back it up.

In the meanwhile, it makes his debate performance possibly helpful but doubtfully critical.  In our final section, we’ll look at the remaining candidates, those who may create plenty of debate attention, but probably won’t benefit much from it, and have limited downside if they mess up.

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